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Attacks puts fresh focus on gun control

Little enthusiasm for broad, new changes

Candles mark the spot where Linda Franklin, of Virginia, was slain by an unknown sniper Monday night.
Candles mark the spot where Linda Franklin, of Virginia, was slain by an unknown sniper Monday night.

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With many of the close congressional races in rural districts, the issue of gun control and gun rights may loom large during the mid-term elections. CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (October 17)
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Gun control: What they're saying 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The sniper attacks around the nation's capital have put a fresh focus on gun control, but -- unlike past years -- there's little evidence that Democrats are eager to push the issue in campaigns, except in at least one high-profile race.

Indeed, the sniper attacks have elicited something of a muted response from both parties, which seem eager to temper their general positions on gun control.

At the White House, the Bush administration Wednesday appeared to back away from flatly rejecting the idea of a national system for ballistics "fingerprinting," with a spokesman saying the idea was under study. (Full story)

The GOP-controlled House Tuesday passed a measure that would help states update their background-check systems. (Full story) The measure had moved quickly in the wake of the shootings, which have left nine people dead and two wounded.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said he hopes the Senate will pass the legislation, which has the support of the National Rifle Association. "It may not relate to this thing that we're all confronted with here in the Washington, D.C. area, but we ought to do that," Lott said.

If Republicans are toning down their rhetoric on gun control, Democrats, for the most part, are doing the same thing. One notable exception is the gubernatorial race in Maryland, where the sniper has shot seven people.

What's going on? Election-year politics.

Republicans don't want to appear indifferent to the tragedy unfolding in the Washington area with a sniper on the loose. And Democrats have learned that gun control isn't always a winning issue for them, especially outside of big cities.

The majority of close races this year are in rural, Western and southern areas, where gun ownership and hunting are more popular. Some Democratic candidates have run ads, touting their own support for the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

In Missouri, for example, Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan has been photographed participating in a skeet shooting event. In Idaho, Democrat Alan Blinken suggests the Republican incumbent, Sen. Larry Craig, is soft on guns.

In one ad, Blinken is pictured holding a rifle, talking to the camera about the "rights of gun owners" and his love for the Idaho "way of life."

Even some gun control advocates tip their hats this year to the Second Amendment.

"Democrats should stand proud as a party that wants to protect gun rights, promote hunting, support hunters and other legitimate gun owners," said Jonathan Cowan, of Americans for Gun Safety. "And Republicans should also stand proud as a party that not just supports gun rights, but also supports moderate sensible gun safety laws."

Lesley Heilman, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said she thinks gun control might become a hotter issue once the sniper is caught and it's clear how the weapon was obtained and whether the killer has a criminal background.

"It's too soon to say," she said, commenting on how the sniper case might impact the seemingly perennial gun control political debate.

But in the governor's race in Maryland, gun violence has emerged as a campaign issue, and the battle lines are familiar.

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 -- has criticized her Republican opponent, Robert Ehrlich, for his opposition to more stringent gun control measures.

"Look, I have suffered more than most from gun violence, and I certainly want to do all I can to reduce gun violence and I understand it helps to have common sense gun laws," she said recently on the campaign trail.

For his part, Ehrlich faulted the Townsend campaign for trying to seek "political advantage" from the sniper attacks.

On Capitol Hill, some Democrats hope their party will not shy away from gun control this election year.

"I believe that the people of the United States as a whole care about this issue very much, and it's a shame tragedies have to happen when the issue comes back up," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New Yorker who ran for political office after her husband was slain and son wounded by a gunman on a Long Island commuter train in 1993.

-- CNN Correspondent Jonathan Karl, and producers Ted Barrett and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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